Some personal experiences are hard to share.
We can relate to many of the personal experiences we hear about: by the time we reach middle age many of us have been through an illness or an accident; we have probably experienced childbirth (if not personally then as a very close and trusted family member or friend); the death of a close relative or friend also happens to everyone sooner or later. We can identify fairly well with many such life events.
But deep trauma can be more difficult to understand. If we have never experienced near death or serious abuse in one form or other, we can say, “Yes, I understand…”, but we don’t really to a great extent. Those of us who have suffered deep trauma usually feel the need to find somebody else who has experienced something similar, or a counsellor who is trained to listen and help us.
In November 2014 I wrote a series of posts on professional doctors, psychiatrists and counsellors who have done ground-breaking work in helping patients and professional helpers to understand infant trauma. Reading some of the key work of people like Drs K J S Anand and P R Hickey, the late Dr David Chamberlain, the late Dr Louis Tinnin, and others has been an “Ah!” moment of discovery and gratitude to people like me who have been affected by infant surgery (including circumcision) as that was so often practised before the 1990s, without general or even local anesthesia, using other crude, painful and invasive procedures, and with long periods of maternal deprivation.
For much of my childhood I was obsessed with a very obvious surgical scar in the middle of my belly, the result of 1945 surgery to remedy pyloric stenosis when I was just 10 days old. From my parents’ ultra-scant comments, I soon came to understand this early episode in my life story was one they’d rather forget. From the medical reports of the time which I’ve been able to read in recent years, I have learnt that infant surgical technique in 1945would have been basic, and it was followed by at least 2 weeks of isolation in hospital to guard against infection.
When my self-awareness awoke between the age of 5 and 6, I soon became obsessed with my scar, addicted to re-enacting what little I knew about my surgery in childish ways, and then to increasing self-harm. It is not helpful or necessary to go into details here, but readers who have had similar problems and feel a need to find greater clarity, healing and reassurance should feel free to email me via the links at the end of other “pages” on this blog’s header.
Why I felt these deep and irresistible urges I did not understand for most of my life, but they troubled me. I believe my parents could have helped me by (1) explaining my surgery and scar, and (2) helping, persuading, tempting and rewarding me to accept and feel proud of my story and scarred body rather than fearfully hiding it from public view. But I also wonder whether the power of the trauma of my early surgery might have overridden anything anyone tried to do later!
Last week our Australian national radio aired an interview with the US Prof. Bessel van der Kolk whose writings have recently been overviewed and quoted by my blogging colleague Wendy P Williams. A New York Times article about Dr van der Kolk is also well worth reading. Yet another article about van der Kolk’s work on infant trauma has been made available by those advocating an end to routine circumcision in the USA.
Prof. Van der Kolk is undoubtedly correct in saying that trauma caused by events in childhood and in later life is causing a hidden epidemic of personal, family and social problems. Only in recent years have childhood abuse and military service begun to be more widely recognised as often causing deep-seated and lasting damage. Even now the military establishment often tries to deny or ignore the obvious damage done by PTSD.
Van der Kolk is also correct in his observation that the numbers afflicted by the trauma of childhood and later vastly outnumber those affected by the infant surgery and mass circumcisions of past years.
However, I have never yet heard of a study of the possible long-term effects of circumcision in the light of what van der Kolk and so many others (including the above trailblazers) have documented as the life-long effects of infant trauma. Such a study may not make pleasant reading but would very quickly and certainly become “a barbeque stopper” and might even be a “game changer”.
Although Dr van der Kolk does not seem to have encompassed old-time early surgery in his work on childhood trauma, I can shout in my loudest voice that from what I have read, what he has written about the effects of childhood hurt is totally true of my journey after infant pyloric stenosis. Thank you, Dr Bessel van der Kolk and others, for helping me to understand myself and find healing!